NASHVILLE — Last week’s fierce winter storms didn’t change all that much at our house. We got mostly snow and sleet here, not freezing rain, so we never lost power. The roads were a catastrophic mess, but our refrigerator and cupboards were full — it’s a time-honored Southern tradition to clear store shelves of milk and bread when the forecast calls for even a flake of snow — and we didn’t have to risk our lives to get to work because we can do our work from home. We were lucky.
That’s all in the world it was: pure dumb luck.
Others were not nearly so fortunate. More than four million people lost power in Texas. Hundreds of thousands of other Americans — mainly in the South, where such weather has historically been an anomaly — soon found themselves in the same boat. Pipes froze. Roadways were lethal. Makeshift attempts to keep warm turned deadly. Vaccine distribution came to a halt.
Weather-related disasters used to be called acts of God: events that are rare, unforeseen and above all nobody’s fault. You don’t blame people living in trailers for the tornado that turned their homes into twisted wreckage. You don’t blame drowning people for the flooded river. An act of God might engender a crisis of faith, but in the old days it didn’t cause a crisis of community. If you were untouched by disaster, you felt lucky, and you rolled up your sleeves to help the ones who weren’t.
You certainly didn’t tell suffering people in the midst of a deadly crisis that they had brought their suffering on themselves.
“Hey, Texas!” the novelist Stephen King wrote in a tweet that has been liked or shared by nearly 100,000 people. “Keep voting for officials who don’t believe in climate change and supported privatization of the power grid!” He failed to mention the 300,000 citizens of hyper-liberal Portland, Ore., who also lost power in the storm.
Liberals, of course, weren’t the only ones playing the blame game in the media last week. In Texas, electricity comes primarily from fossil fuels, but that didn’t stop the governor, Greg Abbott, from peddling the lie that power outages in Texas were the fault of, get this, renewable energy. Never mind that the frozen wind turbines in his state represent only a small fraction of the energy lost to failures in natural gas production during the freeze. Or that there are ways to keep turbines from freezing in the first place.
This whole conversation was playing out while people were freezing to death in their homes and dying of carbon monoxide poisoning in their cars. While people were burning their belongings to keep warm and frantically trying to find backup power for oxygen-dependent family members. And none of it had anything to do with their voting record.
I’m amazed that I have to keep saying this, but not all Southerners believe the lies about climate change trotted out by Republican politicians enslaved to the fossil-fuel industry. Southern Republicans tell their constituents many, many lies, and plenty of people believe them. But not all of us. Nowhere near all of us. In the 2020 presidential election, 5,259,126 Texans voted for Joe Biden. That’s more than 46 percent of voters in the state, and it’s a fairly safe bet that those folks believe in climate change.
But does it even matter? Does how someone votes determine his or her worth as a human being? Absolutely not. It doesn’t take a degree in ethics to understand that people don’t deserve to die just because they made the mistake of trusting greedy, power-mad liars to tell them the truth.
Predictably, the Texas politicians who deny the reality of climate change and the utility executives who mismanaged the Texas power grid weren’t the ones who suffered the most in last week’s winter storms. And the people who were hardest hit — residents of minority neighborhoods — sure couldn’t jet off to Cancún with Ted Cruz to escape the cold. “Let them eat snow,” indeed.
There will be investigations into the full array of reasons for the power failures, and Texas officials may even pull themselves together enough to make a plan for mitigating the damage from future extreme weather events. But at this point there is no stopping the weather calamities themselves.
We don’t know for a fact that these particular storms were a result of an unstable climate, though there is science to support that theory. What we do know is that extreme weather is no longer remarkable. The once-in-100-years floods of old — like the 100-year hurricanes and the 100-year forest fires and the 100-year winter storms — are happening far more often now, and their frequency will continue to rise.
These are not acts of God. These are acts of human behavior, the erratic weather patterns of a climate we have incinerated. And as they always do, the poor and the disenfranchised will suffer the most from the damage we’ve done.
In this context, the impulse to take a cheap shot at Southerners on Twitter isn’t remotely as dangerous as the impulse to deny climate change itself, but it matters. Every form of prejudice matters, perhaps especially so when the people who keep pointing out the splinter in someone else’s eye are trying to see around a plank in their own.
Where climate-related weather disasters are concerned, none of us is innocent. We all created this emergency. With our gasoline engines and our chemically fertilized crops and our factory farms and our addiction to plastic and paper towels, we’re all guilty. And if we have so far escaped the worst ravages of that unstable climate, we need to admit that it’s not because of how we vote or who we are or what we believe. It’s just luck. Just pure dumb luck. And it’s time to roll up our sleeves.
Margaret Renkl is a contributing opinion writer who covers flora, fauna, politics and culture in the American South. She is the author of the books “Late Migrations: A Natural History of Love and Loss” and the forthcoming “Graceland, At Last: And Other Essays From The New York Times.”
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